History’s resting place:
NAU special collections and ‘Resilience’
There are more than 12 million items in the seemingly endless corridors of Cline Library Special Collections and Archives at Northern Arizona University. Stacked high and wide are hundreds of grey acid-free boxes, enormous maps, suede-bound ledgers weighing upward of 30 pounds, Kolb Brothers negatives, a Louie the Lumberjack axe made entirely of copper. NAU’s archive houses more than 500 collections of photographs—kept at a strict 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and 500 manuscript collections, resting at a balmy 68 degrees. As it turns out, Flagstaff’s dry climate is an ideal one, with no moisture threatening to curl pages or mold books.
A crucial part of the Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present
exhibit—the Martin Springer Institute and Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum project, which chronicles the lives of 21 women and non-binary people who have made an impact on Flagstaff—was the use of one of the largest historic repositories in northern Arizona. Each researcher for Resilience, including nine current and former NAU students, accessed the archives at several junctures to learn intimately the lives of the individuals who now make up the final exhibit.
“We collect the human and natural history of the Colorado Plateau, so as you run down the 500-title list of collections, it really runs the gamut,” Sean Evans, archivist for Cline Library Special Collections, said. “One of our top 10 is the Babbitt Brothers collection, plus all kinds of local and regional material, on river running, geography, geology. We really do have quite the mixed bag.”
For the Resilience exhibit, finding information on the women was akin to going fishing, checking phone directories, payroll books in hopes of getting a rough estimate of dates and then moving from there to letters or newspaper articles. It’s both frustrating and exciting, Evans said.
“If we’re really lucky we’ll stumble on someone,” he said.
NAU junior and sociology major Martha Martinez remembers looking over archived newspaper articles from the Coconino Sun (now the Arizona Daily Sun) for Resilience. In them she found large swaths of information on a woman who was in large part responsible for launching Flagstaff’s arts scene in the early 1900s: Mary Costigan, who ran the Orpheum Theater for several years as well as started Flagstaff’s first radio station. Martinez developed something of a bond with her, though Costigan died several decades ago.
“Obviously I couldn’t go and directly interview Mary Costigan,” Martinez said. “But I thought it was really fun to see how different it was living in Flagstaff. After reading through all the articles it was really easy to empathize with her and her situation because she was a business woman and she was so strong but she had a lot of hardships in her life.”
NAU’s archives have been rehoused several times since the university first started collecting in the 1960s, Evans said. Cline Library is a relatively new home for the material, which moved there from a south campus facility in the 1990s. Cline itself wasn’t built until 1966. Before that, according to an alumna, all materials could be found in Gammage, one of NAU’s oldest buildings on historic north campus.
Cline Library Special Collections also houses the northern Arizona material owned by the Arizona Historical Society, items that include, among other things, the Riordan letter books and Weatherford collections, as well as that of the Flagstaff Community Hotel (now the Hotel Monte Vista). Several items are “one of one,” Evans said; they do not exist anywhere else.
In an age in which all libraries replicate similar material, an archive proves a main resource point for researchers and the public alike.
Cline Library archives is home to several oral histories as well, including Los Recuerdos del Barrio, an oral history collection which was conducted by Delia Muñoz, herself featured in Resilience. In Los Recuerdos, Muñoz spoke with Flagstaff’s Hispanic and communities of color, forever cataloging lives that may have otherwise been lost to the annals of history. The African American History Project and the Flagstaff Centennial Oral History Project are also among some of the most important oral histories.
“Those are some of the richest things we have,” Evans said. “The African American Oral History Project straddles a period when people went out into the community, sought permission and recorded the voices of not the people who create history or write it, but everyday history. Delia’s stuff was very important because she was talking to people of different cultures and languages.” Oral histories are a near-daily duty for archives around the country. For example, NAU recently conducted eight or so interviews with friends and family of famous singer Katie Lee.
“As you may have already figured out, librarians in general are a pretty unique crowd. And I think the archivist has always had that special tinge of interest in history,” Evans said.